[Note: This piece contains spoilers for the first four episodes of Season 2.]
There’s a lot of sausage we don’t care to watch get made, but TV isn’t one of them. Lifetime’s UnREAL joins recent examples like 30 Rock, Episodes, The Hour, and The Comeback (but not The Newsroom) in creating compelling television out of behind-the-scenes drama. On Monday’s episode, for example, we saw demoted-to-producer Rachel (Shiri Appleby) and new showrunner Coleman (Michael Rady) use painkillers to sell suitor Darius (B.J. Britt) as the NFL superstar he’s supposed to be, while rival producer Jay (Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman) and formerly high-minded contestant Ruby (Denée Benton) trick the eligible bachelor into an “authentic” moment of connection and romance.
But UnREAL has also lobbed astute and painful barbs this season by exploring how the entertainment industry’s entrenched sexism — which takes the form of women being shut out of leading roles, directors’ chairs, writing gigs, and showrunning duties, among countless other indignities — prevents good television from being made. Hence we’ve got women jumping on trampolines in slo-mo for the Everlasting cameras — “bouncy bouncy bouncy,” salivates show-within-the-show creator Chet (Craig Bierko) — in what Rachel had intended, with her black suitor, to be a trailblazing iteration of the Bachelor-based reality competition.
UnREAL’s ongoing exposé of how contestants are stereotyped, manipulated, edited, advertised, and thrown aside has been a cynic’s delight. Less salacious but just as fascinating, though, is how Rachel and her boss/mentor Quinn (Constance Zimmer) have been similarly used up and rendered vulnerable based on a preexisting template of what the powers that be have already decided they need. This season, the players are getting played by the oldest trick in the book. They know it, but they can’t do anything about it. Sighs Quinn, “If I was a man, they wouldn’t be doing this to me. I’d be wearing sweatpants, scratching my nuts, and boning 22-year-olds.”
Last year, we learned that Chet had cheated Quinn out of millions by pitching her idea to the network as if it were his. But Chet hasn’t had to resort to anything as flagrant as outright theft since to stay atop the ladder, even after his drug-fueled breakdown. That’s because the old boys’ club that makes up the network brass, personified by network president and Chet’s “golfing buddy” Gary (Christopher Cousins), tends to continue hiring people who look like him.
UnREAL cocreator Sarah Gertrude Shapiro told us that Season 2 will “explor[e] the fantasy of what it’s like when women try to live like men.” But what we’ve mostly seen so far is the frustration and heartbreak and lashing out that can occur when women don’t get to live like them. The premiere opens with Rachel and Quinn offering up champagne and lines of coke to Gary in a hotel suite. The surprise of the evening is supposed to be Darius, Everlasting’s first African-American suitor, but a mild shock registers before his arrival: There aren’t any hookers for Gary, the man they’re buttering up. Gary doesn’t notice their absence, but that doesn’t mean Rachel and Quinn’s squabbling — nowhere near as toxic as Quinn and Chet’s last year — escapes his disapproval. He snatches the show away from the two women — neither of whom he sees as worthy of leadership — and hands it over to television newbie Coleman, along with that ultimate boy gift: a Lamborghini. Our infuriation on behalf of Quinn for Gary’s “sucker punch” shouldn’t distract us from a subtler insult tucked in that gift: the exec’s gender-coded language, e.g., “buddy” and “someone strong at the helm,” that implies what an authority figure should look like.
Though Coleman did nothing but sit back in the producers’ room while everyone else around him hurried around set, he accepts the Lambo’s keys from Gary. It’s a scene that cuts to the heart of UnREAL’s thesis this year about gendered promotions: Women rise up, step by uneven step, because they’ve proven their worth to their employers. In the pilot, Quinn semi-sarcastically thanks Gary for the “13 years of slave labor” it took to land a lucrative overall deal. Men, on the other hand, rise up simply as a matter of entitlement. “I earned it,” says Quinn about her (temporary) control over Everlasting at the beginning of the season. Chet doesn’t care about who’s done what and for how long: “I’m ready for it.”
And so we see female creatives thwarted from being recognized for their genius and from reaping the fruits of their labor. They can’t command respect from their predominantly male crew, either. Jeremy (Josh Kelly) talks over his boss Rachel during a staff meeting to ask about the “kill list,” i.e., the girls the cameramen can plan on seducing after they’re eliminated from the show. Quinn’s partly at fault too for using her position to give sexism a pass on set and to promote it on camera. When she explains to Chet that America wants “an honest-to-god wifey who is demure and supportive” for Everlasting’s suitors, one has to wonder how she sees herself in relation to that constricting box of female likability.
That makes her UnREAL’s most riveting character so far this season, as she’s slowly undermined by the very force she foments herself. Quinn joins Rachel’s ex Jeremy in teasing (bullying?) her protégé about “Hot Rachel” (if without the bitter virulence) and demands the contestants get “oiled up, spray-tanned, and pubeless” in their bikinis. Even when she’s winning, her triumphant exclamations — “we’re gonna be kings,” “I’m so hard right now!” — betray through her language that she can’t ever be the swinging dick she so desperately wants to be — and how strangely gendered our language for victory is. As happy as we are for all her conquests, it’s impossible not to wince as her hypermasculine bravado reveals its tragic undertones, and the crescent-shaped silver ornament on the side of her luxe, black Hugo Boss suit catches the light as it digs into her side.